BANGKOK, THAILAND // More than 3,000 Thai police moved into position today to prevent a replay of mass demonstrations that virtually paralysed the government for months and climaxed with the eight-day seizure of the capital's airports, local media said. This time, it was supporters of the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - instead of his opponents - who planned to take to the streets.
Mr Thaksin's followers were planning to marshal enough demonstrators to block the new government from delivering its policy statement at parliament early next week. The protest was scheduled to begin today. Police units were being dispatched to cordon off the parliament building and a nearby field where the pro-Thaksin Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship was to gather, according to The Nation newspaper.
Yesterday, the alliance vowed to stage demonstrations nationwide unless the new prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, dissolves parliament and holds new elections. The group - dubbed the "red shirts" for their favoured protest attire - claim Mr Abhisit's Democrat Party came to power this month through a virtual coup d'etat. An Oxford-educated politician, Mr Abhisit, 44, was formally named prime minister on Dec 17 in what many hoped would be the end of months of turbulent, sometimes violent, protests that had their roots in a 2006 military coup that toppled Mr Thaksin.
Mr Abhisit, the nation's third prime minister in four months, vowed in his inaugural address to reunite the deeply divided nation and to restore Thailand's tourist-friendly image. The eight-day airport shutdown battered the country's essential tourism industry and stranded more than 300,000 travellers. Parliament voted to name Mr Abhisit prime minister after a court dissolved the party leading the previous government, which was packed with Mr Thaksin's allies who now say the court move and subsequent government formation came under pressure from the military and other powerful forces.
Mr Abhisit's Democrat Party had been in opposition since 2001, when Mr Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, first came to power in a landslide election. Military leaders ousted Thaksin in September 2006, accusing him of corruption, keeping him in exile and controlling the country for an interim period until new elections in December 2007 brought Thaksin's allies back into power. He returned to Thailand in February 2008 to face corruption charges but later fled into exile again and was convicted in absentia.
Thailand's recent political convulsions began in August when anti-Thaksin protesters took over the seat of government to demand that his allies resign. Since then, a series of court rulings resulted in the ouster of two Thaksin-allied prime ministers. In October, street clashes with police outside Parliament left two people dead and hundreds injured. Mr Thaksin and his supporters retain strong support in rural areas where they built up a political base, but are disliked by many of the educated elite who viewed his six years in power as deeply corrupt and a threat to their interests.